Characteristics of the Divine

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Characteristics of the Divine

The Epic of Gilgamesh...61
The Odyssey...73
Sri Guru Granth Sahib...85
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner...97
"Paper on Hinduism"...109

The Epic of Gilgamesh61

The Odyssey73

Sri Guru Granth Sahib85

Wicca: A Guide for The Solitary Practitioner97

"Paper on Hinduism"109

Perhaps no other questions have engaged the minds of people since the beginning of history more than those having to do with God. These questions include: How many gods exist? Is God a "person" or an abstract concept? What is the nature of God? What is the relationship between God and the world He (or She) created, including human beings? Most of the world's scriptures and sacred texts try to provide answers to these and other questions about God.

The number of gods in existence

One of the first questions concerns how many gods exist. In connection with this question, theologians (people who study God and religion) use two major terms to describe the world's religions: monotheistic and polytheistic. Less frequently, they also use two other terms, duotheistic and henotheistic.

A monotheistic religion (from mono-, meaning "one") is one that believes in a single, supreme God. The principal monotheistic religions include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. One of the chief beliefs of Islam, for example, is that there is a single God, called Allah, and this belief is reinforced on nearly every page of Islam's sacred scripture, the Qurʾan. Sikhism, too, is a monotheistic religion. In "Jup," the first section of Sikhism's sacred scripture, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the first words are "One Universal Creator God."

In contrast, a polytheistic religion (from poly-, meaning "many") believes in more than one god. The ancient Greeks and Romans, with their pantheons of gods and goddesses, are examples of cultures whose religion was polytheistic. A pantheon refers to the officially recognized gods of a people. "Athena Inspires the Prince," an excerpt from the Greek poet Homer's The Odyssey, makes clear that the ancient Greeks believed in numerous gods, each of which had control over some aspect of creation, such as the seas.

A duotheistic religion (from duo-, meaning "two") is also polytheistic, because its members believe in more than one god. These religions, however, do not worship a large number of gods or even several gods. Rather, they worship a pair of gods, often a masculine god and a feminine god. As Scott Cunningham states in Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Wicca, with its belief in a male god and a female goddess, is considered a duotheistic religion. This belief in two gods stems from ancient religions that, for example, worshipped the Sun and the Moon and saw both a feminine and a masculine principle at work in the natural world.

Finally, a henotheistic religion can be thought of as a cross between monotheism and polytheism. Such a religion worships one supreme God but does not deny that other gods exist. Sometimes believers worship these other gods as manifestations, or representations or expressions, of the supreme God. One example of a henotheistic religion is that of the ancient Egyptians. For the Egyptians, a god such as Amon was considered an attribute of the supreme god Ra; that is, he was thought to represent a trait or feature of Ra. Thus, Amon was often referred to as Amon-Ra.

Hinduism is also henotheistic. Hindus worship a single God, Brahma, who has no specific form, but they see other gods and goddess as forms or qualities of Brahma. Drawing on this belief, Hindus tend not to see their version of God as superior in any way to any other versions of God. For Hindus, all of the world's gods are manifestations, or appearances, of the same divine being or spirit. Swami Vivekananda emphasizes this belief in his "Paper on Hinduism." He writes that the "contradictions" among the gods of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and other religions are only "apparent," meaning that they seem to be contradictions but are not really so under the surface. He says that the light of religious truth, including different ideas of the nature of God, "is the same light coming through glasses of different colors." He goes on to say, "The Lord has declared to the Hindu in His incarnation as Krishna: 'I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls.'" In other words, while Hindus may see God in a certain way, the points of view of other religions are no less truthful or valid. All gods are manifestations of the same eternal and unchanging force.

Characteristics of god

A second major question studied by theologians concerns the characteristics of God. These features can apply either to one supreme God in monotheistic religions or to multiple gods and goddesses in polytheistic religions. Among monotheistic religions, God is typically seen as pure, eternal, and the source of all creation. People can come to know Him only by listing His many characteristics: His power, virtue, greatness, beauty, and so on. Listing these traits is one of the chief purposes of Sikhism's "Jup," as well as of the Qurʾan of Islam. Other traits often assigned to a single, supreme God include His being all powerful, all knowing, present everywhere, and all good. Many religions, including Christianity, place a great deal of emphasis on the belief that God is loving and cares very much about the welfare of the humans He created.

One major question religions face is whether God is a "person." People are male or female, and they identify themselves with names. Many cultures picture their God as a person. An example is Ahura Mazda, the name for God in Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion from what is now Iran. Ahura Mazda is identified as male. Christianity also identifies God as male. The religion of Wicca identifies both male and female gods. Examples include the male gods Apollo and Tammuz and the female goddesses Hecate and Ceriddwen.

The notion of God as a person often leads both monotheistic and polytheistic religions to assign human characteristics to God. In the Jewish sacred scripture, the Tanakh (referred to by Christians as the Old Testament), God is a humanlike being who often has to be appeased (soothed or calmed) because He grows angry with humans. He shows Himself to humans to provide them with laws to live by and to make contracts, or agreements, with them. Humans can sometimes even negotiate with Him to arrive at agreements. Similarly, the gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh are depicted as "persons" who grow angry with humans and send a great flood to destroy humankind. Finally, the gods of Homer's The Odyssey have distinct humanlike personalities and meddle freely in human affairs as though they were humans themselves. Thus, in "Athena Inspires the Prince," the chief god, Zeus, is portrayed much as a human king, with the ability to govern, reward good conduct and punish evil, dispense justice, and protect cities and homes, while Athena acts like a human counselor and friend to Telemachus.

Other religions, in contrast, see God as a force, without any specific form or humanlike characteristics. Although this point of view can be found worldwide, it is especially prominent among Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. These religions view God as an ultimate, eternal reality that exists beyond the suffering and change of the physical world. God is not identified as a specific "person." As the "Jup" notes, "By thinking, He cannot be reduced to thought." Similarly, Swami Vivekananda highlights the eternal nature of God in Hinduism when he writes, "God is the ever-active providence [fate], by whose power systems after systems are being evolved out of chaos [disorder], made to run for a time, and again destroyed." For Hindus, God is not a person but a creative principle, a force that is eternally at work in the universe.

God's relationship with humans

A third question that arises in connection with God concerns the nature of His relationship with creation and specifically with humans. Among monotheists a distinction is sometimes made between two types of belief, theism and deism. Theists believe that God is the ongoing sustainer of the universe He created. Thus, God remains involved with day-to-day human affairs. Deists, in contrast, believe that God withdrew from the world He created; the figure of speech often used to express this idea is that God is like a watchmaker (or clockmaker) who built the watch, wound it up, and then let it operate on its own. These differing views about God's involvement with creation are not necessarily associated with any particular religion. Muslims, the followers of Islam, would be considered theists, believing that God remains intimately involved with the daily affairs of creation and of humans. Judaism and Christianity lean toward the theistic view, but many Jews and especially Christians adopt a more deistic view. They believe that God created the world and set it in motion, but they do not believe that God involves Himself in the day-to-day affairs of His creation.

Polytheistic religions, too, often see the gods and goddesses as having an ongoing relationship with humans. Many polytheistic religions emerged from cultures that were not literate (that is, they did not read or write) and that did not understand science. They attributed natural forces to the work of gods and goddesses. In an arid country, for example, a rain god or rain goddess may have been credited with bringing rain as a sign of his or her favor, while drought was seen as a sign of his or her anger. In more fertile countries, gods and goddesses were thought to control the harvest of crops. The ancient Sumerians, who produced the Gilgamesh epic, were entirely dependent on the cycles of nature. They saw their gods as beings who could, for example, reward humankind with bountiful crops, but who could also punish humankind with crop failure through flood, fire, or other disasters.

Some people believe that there is no God (or gods). They argue that God is an invention of the human imagination. Most of the world's people, however, disagree. They may differ about the number of gods, the nature of God, and the ways in which they describe him (or her). They may see God as an active participant in the world's affairs or as a passive observer of creation. They may see God as a person or as a creative force. Most people have a very human need to seek truth through spirituality. The ongoing debate over the nature of God reflects this need.